Writer and historian Catherine Beale gives us the inside-track on the Wenlock Olympian Games and shows us around Much Wenlock, the idyllic Shropshire town which played a key part in forming the Olympics as we know them today.
If you like your national occasions to have a bit of historic oomph but the Olympics Games are looking tricky, I recommend heading for Much Wenlock in glorious Shropshire to catch the Wenlock Olympian Games.
It’s an independently-minded market town that, to coin a sporting cliché, punches above its weight. Always has done, mostly because the seventh-century abbey that the town served owned a whopping 18,000 acres hereabouts. Then in the Industrial Revolution, Much Wenlock’s location five miles south of Ironbridge put it in on the map as the 18th-century equivalent of Silicon Valley. So although its quaint name conjures up Shropshire Lads and Vaughan Williams’ bucolic strings, it’s a place with a potent and robust past.
Among its notable Victorian visitors were novelist Henry James, art critic John Ruskin, and founder of the International Olympic Committee, Pierre de Coubertin. Coubertin visited in October 1890 at the invitation of local doctor, William Penny Brookes, to talk about the value of Physical Education in schools. Brookes also marked the 40th anniversary of his first Wenlock Olympian Games with a celebratory version, wowing his visitor with athletes, mounted cavalry, brass bands, children strewing petals, and floral arches over the streets.
Coubertin admired the Games Field’s facilities for track and field, tennis, bowling, equestrian events and swimming, its grandstand, and specimen trees (he planted a golden oak – it’s still there). There was a medal ceremony and laurel crowns, and Brookes’ Games included prizes for the arts – painting, music, and poetry. All this, Coubertin acknowledged completed the ‘classic parallel’, nowhere else attempted. Within two years Coubertin had decided to base international athletic competition on the Olympic model he’d seen here. He formed the International Olympic Committee in 1894 and its first Games were held at Athens in 1896.
Brookes’ contribution was forgotten at London 1908 and 1948, but 2012 couldn’t be more different. One of the Olympic mascots (the orange one) is called Wenlock, the town’s museum received a Lottery grant and has recently re-opened, Wenlock Olympian Games medals and artefacts are currently on display at the British Museum in London and there’s a even a themed trail around the town.
Most important of all though is the Wenlock Olympian Games, still taking place annually on Linden Field, this year from 8 to 21 July.
Elsewhere in Much Wenlock…
Check out the the Raven Hotel where Coubertin dined, Anna Dreda’s award-winning bookshop, the outstanding museums of nearby Ironbridge Gorge, the carved stones of Wenlock Abbey (the only ones outside Venice to be illustrated in Ruskin’s Stones of Venice) and legendary butcher Paddy Ryan’s – the Saturday morning queue for which is becoming a tourist attraction in its own right!
For an indepth guide to the birthplace of the modern day games check out Born out of Wenlock: William Penny Brookes and the British origins of the modern Olympics by Catherine Beale.